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Nogo-Ptbo's inaugural Poet Laureate, Sarah Lewis. Photo courtesy of Sarah Lewis.

Meet Peterborough’s Inaugural Poet Laureate, Sarah Lewis

Written by
Irene Suvillaga
and
and
November 29, 2021
Meet Peterborough’s Inaugural Poet Laureate, Sarah Lewis
Nogo-Ptbo's inaugural Poet Laureate, Sarah Lewis. Photo courtesy of Sarah Lewis.

This is Sarah Lewis, the Anishnaabe Kwe (Ojibwe/Cree) artist from Curve Lake who was recently selected as Nogojiwanong-Peterborough’s first poet laureate by the Electric City Council (EC3) and the City of Peterborough.

As outlined by the EC3 media release, “As a centuries-old tradition, a Poet Laureate is an appointed artist who primarily composes and presents poems at official occasions.” The honorary role acts as an advocate for the arts, endorsing the City of Peterborough and its residents by recognizing the excellence and outstanding achievements of local professional poets, creating and presenting works for various civic occasions, and undertaking a program of special events and activities to promote literacy, poetry, local arts, culture and civic identity. 

The newly appointed poet laureate has already performed at a series of events including her first performance in front of the City Council on  September 27 and her presentation of two videos on September 30, which marked the first-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. 

The spoken word artist, mother and social justice activist was described as a “dreamer and curious spirit in pursuit of answers about the universe” by the media release from EC3. Her work was selected among several dozens of other writers by a Peer Assessment Selection Committee that included an array of creators from all areas of the craft,  including well-known writers, poets, academics, song writers and spoken word artists. 

Enchanted by the “beauty of Sarah Lewis’ language, the remarkable ‘architecture’ of her work, the creativity and finesse of her presentation, and the all-embracing concepts she brings to bear on ideas about community, citizenship, history and identity,” the Selection Committee was pleased to announce her as the choice for the city's first Poet Laureate pilot program. 

I had the pleasure of sitting down (virtually) with Sarah Lewis and chat about her life, work and the intersection of both. Ever since reading her work, and watching videos of her performing, it was clear to me that the young laureate’s work is an attempt to re-conquer her identity as an Indigenous woman, and re-write history as a story of resistance, resilience, strength and triumph. When talking to her, Lewis briefly reminisced about her past, what influenced and continues to impact her writing and activism, as well as the woman and artist she is today.

“I've been writing since I was a little girl, probably since I was like 10 years old, mostly just a lot of journaling and stories. I think I really got into poetry in grade 10. Sometimes in high school I attended a workshop at my school and there were two spoken word poets who did like a 2 day workshop and I was just blown away. I had no idea what spoken word was or that you could write poetry in this way.”

Lewis recalled her first encounter with slam poetry in high school. During the interview, she emphasized how this form of expression impacted and molded her not-so-distant future as a poet. When asked why  she chose this form of art specifically, she said, 

“In spoken word, the poem is personal. The poem is personal to the person who is speaking it, just the emotion, their voice and their story, like a person speaking their own story and speaking their own truth it's a lot much moving. And I find that in spoken word, you are engaged with the audience more - it gives life to the story and gives the listeners the actual voice of the story. It's a really powerful medium.”

Through an unapologetic and raw writing style, Lewis explores the ashes of her origin, unravelling the dark, hidden legacies of a not-so-distant colonial past and re-appropriating the voice of her people. Her love for this craft immediately paved the way to her long-practiced activism and opened new doors towards realization and self-discovery. Lewis’ passion for activism stems primarily from her personal life experiences and those of the world around her. Growing up on various  reservations, Lewis was faced with the reality of colonialism’s footprint on her people. 

“First and foremost I try to come from my personal experiences and my connection to living in Canada and what colonization has done to different communities that I've lived in and my family as well.  I was always into activism, I have been passionate about Indigenous issues and trying to spread awareness around that. But I think what really pushed and motivated me as a catalyst for my writing were my experiences growing up. I've lived on a number of reservations and I was always horrified and confused towards what my people were facing. So much addiction and so much violence and I have aunties and friends that I went to school with that were going missing and were murdered, I didn't understand why this was happening to Indigenous people and my family. 
I just thought that there was something wrong with us, until I learned about colonization and residential schools. I didn't know how to tell my story and I wanted to make people aware of this.”

However, beyond her constant exposure to violence, injustices and the repercussions of generational traumas, Lewis sees beyond the bounds of darkness, which is exactly what she tries to capture in words. Her eyes are fixed and her heart tuned to the power that matriarchs in her family have emanated throughout time. Her voice channels the power and the crude sincerity of generations of Indigenous peoples and more specifically, Indigenous women who continue to redefine themselves and fight for their rights. 

“I have a lot of powerhouses and matriarchs in my family, on the women's side specifically. I was very inspired by them, my whole life. There are medicine women and healers, and my grandmother was the first woman chief in Canada - she used her voice to speak up for the community and it was just really inspiring and I wanted to carry that legacy as well.”

Lewis knows the power of storytelling from her own experiences listening to generations worth of stories and knowledge, and has recently noticed that these stories were unintentionally planted and have begun blooming in her own child's head. These mediums of expression, Lewis implied, seem to take an integral part in her life, one that she is eager to pass down.

“The way we teach our children even in our culture is storytelling, we use that oral tradition. And I hadn't even noticed, like I would be rehearsing my poetry, like even in the car or around the house, and he [Lewis’ son] had memorized almost an entire poem that I had been practicing and I was just shocked. And I think I  definitely want to carry on that message to him. Children see and children do. So I definitely try to encourage poetry and singing and dancing and like to try to carry those oral traditions like my family had for me. I think [being a mother] definitely pushed my activism to another level.”

Since her selection in September, Lewis has already started working on her role as Peterborough’s new poet laureate, providing workshops for youth for various schools in the city and planning ahead for next year's events. 

“There is a lot happening, in and outside of Peterborough. I was just featured in a Toronto International Festival of Authors. It was Indigenous artists from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico and I was one of the two finalists, we’ll be published into a book. Next year, in Peterborough specifically I'll be doing a lot of workshops in the Peterborough Public Library, so there will be a lot of advertisements going up around that once everything’s been set. 
I've been doing workshops for various schools, everything isn't set in stone but there’s going to be an event in spring time that I want to call out to emerging artists. There’s a lot happening.”

In the last portion of our interview session, I asked Sarah if she had any advice for a young poet. With deep humility, she responded with a message for youth: 

“To continue to use your voice for the things that move you and the things you believe in. And sometimes it is uncomfortable but those are often the messages that people need to hear the most and to always tell your story and to speak your truth. Everybody has their own stories, and those stories are important. The things that we believe in, that we are passionate about, those are the things that are going to change the world. Especially the youth, the youth are the future.”
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